‘Even the most perfect reproduction … is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’
– Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’
‘The melody of mothers’ speech carries through the bodies and is audible in the womb.’
– Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct
‘“No!” I said instantly and at once.’
– Imre Kertész, Kaddish for an Unborn Child
Writing prose is like giving birth. The sentence exits the womb reluctantly; it screams as it leaves the body. I’ve never given birth but I can imagine. I’m writing these sentences because I don’t want children. Dear Sophie, this is for you.
Everything about children is repugnant to me. Their shrieking in the park on what would be an otherwise peaceful afternoon. Their wailing on planes where I’m stuck with them thousands of miles in the air and somewhere west of Chicago. Their whining as they trail behind their parents on a beautiful path to the beach. The schmutz of a cookie still lingering on their faces. The pitch of their voices asking their incessant questions. A puddling infant who looks for all intents and purposes like my obese grandfather. I don’t feel what I’m supposed to feel – a sensation in my ovaries, I presume. No joy, no desire, no longing. I feel nothing but a wave of repulsion, and gratitude I’ve made it childless this far.
I thought I’d say this at the outset, so you know where I’m coming from.
However, regardless of this all, I must say that I feel you waiting, as it were, in the wings. Even as I ignore you, rage against you, push you away, you are still there. A deep, still presence, patient, expectant. Sometimes I wonder if I have any say in the matter at all. When you want to enter the world, you will, and I will just be the door you came in by.
Why do you want to live in this world, here in this time and place? By the time you are 30 you may live a daily catastrophe beyond my ability to imagine. You may live on a hot, drought-stricken Earth as countries battle over what is left of its water. You may mourn the loss of the last animal species. You may be steeped in a culture so anxious and digitised that the human capacity for empathy, for connection and community, will be as obsolete as the rotary telephone. During your lifespan, even if I train you to live mindfully and simply, you will produce over 100 tonnes of trash. It will cost me $200,000 to send you to college, or you will be saddled with a debt you will spend many decades paying. Over the course of your life, you will leave behind a mountain of coffee cups, thousands of plastic bags, hundreds of discarded shoes and jeans and cellphones. You will contribute to the Pacific trash vortex with your water bottles and toothpaste caps. Your existence will add to child labour, fracking, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, factory farming and climate change. As a native speaker of American English, you will write, sing, recite poetry and make love in the language that is overtaking the world like a virus, endangering cultural and linguistic diversity. Even if I raised you, as I would, to be conscious of your ecological footprint, to live simply and work for the Earth, to eat grass-fed beef and grow your own vegetables – even if, in the best case scenario, you grew up to be an artist, a peace activist, a human rights lawyer, a teacher, a homesteader – your very existence would add stress to a much overburdened Earth. And that’s the best case scenario. You might vote Republican. You might be a software engineer. You might not care for the Earth at all.
So why here, why now? Do you see some beauty here that calls to you? The sheer fact of living? Do you have some role, some service, you are supposed to perform? Do you know something of the future that I don’t?
I think of all the times I have prayed for your inexistence. In bed, my boyfriend unprotected and still inside me, I’m counting the days of the month like the omer, reciting to myself the lines of my favourite Sharon Olds poem, in which she says, speaking from the little yurt of the testicles, ‘Stay here for the children of this father it may be the better life’. This poem is my prayer: Stay, Sophie, stay.
The way that other women pray for a child I pray for no child.
I don’t want to deny you what you want most in the world. To live, most of all. But I wonder that you can’t find another mother, one who longs for you and would gladly prepare a home for you in her body and her life. Why have you chosen me in particular? That first time I saw you, when you were floating over the bed, you winked at me. This was when I learned your name, Sophie. After my mother, and my great-grandmother. You made it clear that you were here and you were mine and you were waiting for me.
In my dream I am holding a child. I am playing Solomon, requiring two mothers to divide her. One mother is existence, the other non-existence. Will the real mother please stand up.
I am writing to you between the two poles of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At the pivot of the looking to the past and the looking to the future. To whom, to what, I wonder, do I need to make amends. Dear Sophie, should I be sorry for refusing you? Or do I have your best interests at heart? Neither the future nor the past encourages me to bring you into being. The view from both windows looks out on invariable loss. The Holocaust we have lived, the Holocaust (of the Earth, the animals) that we are currently living, and all the potential Holocausts to come. Even in the best case scenario, I would be bringing you into life in order to bring you to your eventual and inevitable death. No, I have no need to apologise.
Yet by not bringing you into being, I am denying you your life altogether. A kind of pre-emptive abortion. This is what my father – your grandfather – argues when I say I don’t want children. You are refusing a child a chance at life. Would you rather have not been born? he adds, as if by not wanting a child I am negating not only her life but, retroactively, my own, as if opting for childlessness were also a de facto vote for annihilation. The subtext: Are you not grateful to me for giving you life? Yes, I am grateful, every day, to be alive. Would I wish it on an unborn child? Maybe, maybe not.
Sometimes I wonder if what I feel of your presence is not a future figure but a ghost. The child that might have been born had Margot, my grandfather’s first wife, not died in the camps. The daughter that would have been, in place of the sons that were: the sons of my grandfather and grandmother. Impossible to think that if you existed my father would not. Nor would I. My life in exchange for yours. An impossible Solomonian bind.
Or are you perhaps the ghost child of my old lover? His then-girlfriend conceived when he was 20, and he accompanied her into the hospital room for the abortion. If you were this child, Sophie, you would be now, inconceivably, 12 years old. I can barely imagine this man as a father. How he would have been trapped in a disfigured marriage, a replication of his childhood with his mother, with whom he shared a bedroom until he was 15. Trapped, because that was his pattern. Why couldn’t you get trapped with me? I pleaded when we were breaking up. With me he felt a sense of freedom, he explained. Free to leave me.
After the abortion, he and that girlfriend stayed together for three more years, during which time she started carrying a pet rabbit on a leash to replace the child she had lost. As much pain as the abortion brought them, I believe they would have suffered even more with a child. And I understand where they were coming from; I would have done the same. Dear Sophie, I’m glad you didn’t visit me, unwanted, earlier, without asking, because if you had, you wouldn’t exist. Before you were you, I would have killed you.
So perhaps, Sophie, I am indeed asking for your forgiveness. Forgiveness for my reluctance, my ambivalence, for that tangle of desire and fantasy and adamant refusal. For praying both for your life and your annihilation. You come from a long line of displaced people, so perhaps, after all, this is what you were expecting – to be exiled from your mother’s womb, a refugee in the etheric realm: homeless, placeless, nomadic. To come this far on the boat from the land of the before-life, only to be turned away at the border. I see you standing there at the entrance to this world, your old-fashioned suitcase filled with your grandmothers’ shoes, and I reach out a hand.
Sophie, if we do decide to take those last steps forward together, this is what I ask of you: that you come here with respect for the great gift of your human form; that you care for your body, which is tender and irreplaceable and given to you by your ancestors, and for the worn body of the Earth, which is also your inheritance; that you will truly know how you are loved and how great is your capacity for loving; that you are present fully for the duration of your time here. May you experience boredom, joy, uncertainty and heartbreak. May you learn French and monologues from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the formula for the radius of a circle. How to read, how to type, how to cook, how to plant a garden. May you know that you are of your ancestors but you are not your ancestors, nor is it your job to save them. They were dead before you got here: live your own life.
So before you enter the world, Sophie, look around. Is this the one you wanted? Is this the one you were hoping for? Dandelions, rivulets, chocolate cake, the New York State thruway, red-tailed hawks, styrofoam cups? Asphalt, seltzer, photons, pomegranates, fire, Elizabeth Gilbert, Led Zeppelin, luna moths, men? Delight, melancholia, claustrophobia, spaciousness, anxiety, discomfort, apathy, and the longing, longing, longing? A world of things and feelings, insides and outsides, beauty and pain, where it will be precisely this exquisite beauty that will hurt you most of all? If so, here it is. Welcome to the place you dreamed of when you dreamed of home.
The Night You Were Reborn Into the Eternal Home
The image depicts Sophia, the feminine aspect of Creation, her hands reaching out across the night sky in search of another in the universal darkness. The image was shot the night before the total solar eclipse of August 2017 at Serpent Mound, Ohio. Serpent Mound is an ancient effigy mound in the shape of a curving serpent, with both solar and lunar alignments. It is also at the site of an astrobleme, a location where there was an ancient meteor impact. Serpent Mound is considered by many to be a devotional sacred site and people from all around the country gathered here to witness the eclipse.
Ilyse Krivel is an artist who splits her time between Toronto and the hills of Kentucky. Through her work she aims to illuminate the ephemeral force at work between the cracks of matter. She dreams of the future as a forest dweller in the mountains. She will get there. ilysianfields.tumblr.com
There’s more where this comes from in our latest book.